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Posts Tagged ‘Moral Hazard’

The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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There are many reasons to oppose the various bailouts of the Greek government. Here are my two main reasons.

  1. I don’t like rewarding investors who make imprudent decisions, and it really galls me to bail out the (mostly) rich people who bought Greek bonds.
  2. I don’t like rewarding politicians who make imprudent decisions, and it really galls me since bailouts encourage additional imprudent behavior.

Let’s focus today on the second point.

Here’s Greece’s score for the “Size of Government” component from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see, bailouts have actually subsidized a decline in fiscal responsibility.

And it’s worth pointing out that Greek politicians have been doing a bad job in other areas.

The burden of red tape has been, and remains, stifling.

Greece ranks at the top in difficulty in setting up and running a business among 75 countries, according to the Global Business Complexity Index for 2019. The difficulty in starting an enterprise in Greece is mainly due to a labyrinth bureaucracy, frequent changes in legislation, differences in taxation and VAT rates in regions and unpredictable treatment of businesses by authorities. Indonesia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Bolivia, and Slovakia follow Greece in the first six places. The easiest state to start and run a business is in the Cayman Islands.

Here are the rankings. Keep in mind that “01” is the worst score and “76” is the best score (kudos to the Cayman Islands for being the most entrepreneur-friendly).

Interestingly, voters ousted a left-wing government earlier this year.

And Bloomberg reports that Greece’s new right-of-center government intends to reduce the burden of government.

Mitsotakis presented his four-year economic agenda in his first plenary speech to parliament since winning national elections on July 7. …The premier’s priority is a reform of Greece’s complex tax system to create a more pro-business environment, necessary for attracting investment to boost the economy’s recovery. Mitsotakis wants to make good on election pledges to alleviate the tax burden for crisis-weary Greeks, specifically for the middle classes who were targeted the most by the previous administration. …Mitsotakis said he will introduce legislation…to reduce the so-called Enfia property tax by as much as 30%, according to the value of properties. …The government plans to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20% in two phases. The first step, in September, will cut the rate to 24% from 28% in 2019 and to 20% in 2020. The tax on dividend payments will be slashed by half to 5%… Also planned is the privatization of Hellenic Petroleum SA and the sale of a 30% stake in Athens Airport.

Indeed, a columnist for the New York Times frets that the new government is hard right.

New Democracy…seems to be a right-wing party… And Mr. Mitsotakis, who promised to unite the country, is following divisive and polarizing policies. …You don’t have to search far for evidence. …Three crucial regulatory agencies — protecting the country’s finances, work force and environment — have been effectively dissolved as part of a bill, recently passed by Parliament, to restructure government. …Domna Michailidou, the vice minister of labor, personifies the cabinet’s ideological agenda. In 2017, she openly praised cuts in wages as “necessary” for the sake of competitiveness. …Greece finished its third and last bailout program last August, but remains shellshocked after nearly a decade of austerity. Official unemployment is at 18 percent; youth unemployment scores a staggering 40 percent. …None of New Democracy’s vaunted policies — to cut corporation taxes and privatize industry in an effort to stimulate economic growth and create “new jobs” — are likely to address the country’s problems. They may well do the opposite.

Some of this sounds good, but I’ll have to see concrete results before I become a believer.

Most supposed right-of-center governments are either very inconsistent (think Trump) or generally bad (think Macri or Sarkozy).

I just focus on results.

Speaking of which this chart, based on the OECD’s fiscal database, shows what happened to revenue (left side) and spending (right side) between 2007 and 2018.

As you can see on the right side, the burden of spending has actually increased.  That’s not my idea of austerity.

The big change that stands out over the past 10 years, though, is that the burden of taxation has jumped. A lot.

In other words taxpayers have been forced to tighten their belts but politicians haven’t tightened government’s belt.

The moral of the story is that tax increases always make a bad fiscal situation worse. Greece has proved that over and over and over again.

P.S. I guess bad results should be expected in a nation where bureaucrats demand stool samples before you can set up an online company. Another sign of Greece’s moral and fiscal bankruptcy is that pedophiles can get disability payments.

P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s also enjoy some Greek-related humor. This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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Something really strange is happening. Yesterday, I wrote about how I agreed with Trump on a trade issue.

Today, I’m going to agree with Crazy Bernie about a moral hazard issue.

Shocking, but true. The Vermont socialist actually understands that it makes no sense to subsidize new homes in flood-prone areas.

I’ll probably never again have a chance to write this next sentence, so it deserves an exclamation point. Bernie is completely correct!

Flood insurance encourages people to take on excessive risk (i.e., it creates moral hazard). And the subsidies often benefit rich people with beachfront homes (which may explain why Senator Sanders is on the right side)

If nothing else, politicians are very clever about doing the wrong thing in multiple ways.

So we’re not merely talking about luring people into flood-prone areas with subsidized insurance.

Sometimes government uses rental subsidies to put people in flood-prone areas.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

When a deadly rainstorm unloaded on Houston in 2016, Sharobin White’s apartment complex flooded in up to six feet of water. She sent her toddler and 6-year-old to safety on an air mattress, but her family lost nearly everything, including their car. When Hurricane Harvey hit the next year, it happened all over again: Families rushed to evacuate, and Ms. White’s car, a used Chevrolet she bought after the last flood, was destroyed. …But Ms. White and many of her neighbors cannot afford to leave. They are among hundreds of thousands of Americans — from New York to Miami to Phoenix — who live in government-subsidized housing that is at serious risk of flooding… But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees some of the at-risk properties, does not currently have a universal policy against paying for housing in a designated flood zone. …Nationwide, about 450,000 government-subsidized households — about 8 to 9 percent — are in flood plains…

While FEMA and government-subsidized flood insurance wouldn’t even exist in my libertarian fantasy world, I’m willing to acknowledge that government sometimes does things that aren’t completely foolish.

For instances, it’s better to subsidize people to move out of flood-prone areas instead of subsidizing them to rebuild in those areas.

Nashville is trying to move people…away from flood-prone areas. The voluntary program uses a combination of federal, state and local funds to offer market value for their homes. If the owners accept the offer, they move out, the city razes the house and prohibits future development. The acquired land becomes an absorbent creekside buffer, much of it serving as parks with playgrounds and walking paths. …While a number of cities around the country have similar relocation projects to address increased flooding, disaster mitigation experts consider Nashville’s a model that other communities would be wise to learn from: The United States spends far more on helping people rebuild after disasters than preventing problems. …research shows that a dollar spent on mitigation before a disaster strikes results in at least six dollars in savings. There are many reasons more people end up rebuilding in place than moving away. Reimbursement is relatively quick, while FEMA’s buyout programs tend to be slow and difficult to navigate.

While it’s encouraging to see a better approach, we wouldn’t need to worry about the issue if government got out of the business of subsidizing flood insurance.

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal expressed disappointment last year when Republicans blew a golden opportunity to fix the program.

One disappointment you can count on is a GOP failure to fix one of the worst programs in government: taxpayer subsidized flood insurance. …The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program was set to expire on Nov. 30, and Congress rammed through a temporary extension to buy more time. Congress was supposed to deal with the program as part of the end-of-the-year rush. The program runs a $1.4 billion annual deficit, which comes from insurance priced too low to compensate for the risk of building homes near water. Congress last year forgave $16 billion of the program’s $24 billion debt to Treasury, not that anyone learned anything. The program then borrowed another $6 billion. …If Republicans can’t fix this example of failed government because it might upset parochial interests, they deserve some time in the political wilderness.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is better on this issue than last year’s GOP Congress.

I’ve criticized Republicans on many occasions, but this must rank as the most damning comparison.

But let’s set aside politics and partisanship.

What matters is that the federal government is operating an insanely foolish program that puts people at risk, soaks taxpayers, and destroys wealth.

Gee, maybe Reagan was right when he pointed out that government is the problem rather than the solution.

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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund and I regularly criticize the international bureaucracy for its relentless advocacy in favor of higher taxes.

But that’s not what worries me most about the IMF.

To be sure, higher fiscal burdens undermine economic vitality, and I regularly warn that such policies will reduce an economy’s potential long-run growth rate.

That being said, tax increases generally don’t threaten macroeconomic stability.

If we’re looking at policies that can trigger short-run crises, I’m more concerned about the IMF’s bailout policies. For all intents and purposes, the IMF subsidizes “moral hazard” by reducing the perceived cost (to financial institutions) of lending money to dodgy governments and reducing the perceived costs (to governments) of incurring more debt.

Why not take more risk, after all, if you think the IMF will step in to socialize any losses? In other words, when the IMF engages in a few bailouts today, it increases the likelihood of more bailouts in the future.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the bureaucrats want a bigger figurative checkbook to enable even bigger future bailouts.

The good news is that the U.S. government can say no.

But will it? The U.K.-based Financial Times reported a few days ago that the United States might support an expansion of the IMF’s bailout capacity.

The Trump administration has left the door open for a US funding boost to the IMF, calling for a “careful evaluation” of the global lender’s finances to make sure it has enough money to rescue struggling economies. …The IMF — led by Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister — is hoping to get its members to increase the fund’s permanent reserves… This year, the Trump administration has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the IMF’s $57bn loan package to Argentina— its largest in history.

The next day, the FT augmented its coverage.

The IMF is set to embark on a major fundraising drive…the success of Ms Lagarde’s campaign is highly uncertain, with potentially profound consequences not only for the fund but for the global economy. …supporters of the fund say there are many possible scenarios in which it would be essential. If a recession and financial crisis were to hit in the coming years,central bankers may well struggle to find monetary remedies… a US Treasury spokesman left the door open to new possible contributions from America to the IMF. …Optimists point to a surprise decision by the Trump administration in April to support a $13bn boost to World Bank resources… there is still scepticism of the IMF among his top lieutenants at the Treasury department, including David Malpass, the undersecretary for international affairs. …Even if they were on board, economic and national security hawks at the White House who disdain multilateralism as a loss of sovereignty could be an additional obstacle, not to mention Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The previous IMF quota increase, pushed by the Obama administration — which raised America’s permanent commitment to the fund to about $115bn — finally scraped through Congress in 2016, after a half-decade delay.

I was very saddened a couple of years ago when the GOP Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s bailout authority, especially since a similar effort was blocked in 2014 when Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The issue today is whether the Trump Administration will repeat that mistake.

Back in 2012, I stated that the IMF issue was a “minimum test” for Republicans. Well, the issues haven’t changed. Everything I wrote then still applies today.

I hope Trump does the right thing and rejects expanded bailout authority for the IMF for the sensible reason that it’s foolish to subsidize more borrowing by badly governed nations.

But I’m not picky. I’ll also be happy if Trump says no simply because he’s miffed that the IMF attacked him (accurately but unfairly) during the 2016 campaign and dissed his tax plan earlier this year.

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With Florence about to hit, it’s time to preemptively explain how the federal government makes damage more likely and why post-hurricane efforts will make future damage more likely.

There are just two principles you need to understand.

  1. When Washington subsidizes something, you get more of it, and the federal government subsidizes building – and living – in risky areas.
  2. When Washington provides bailouts, you incentivize risky behavior in the private sector and “learned helplessness” from state and local governments.

If I wanted to be lazy (or to be merciful and spare readers from a lengthy column), this satirical image is probably all that’s necessary to explain the first point. The federal government’s flood insurance program gives people – often the very rich, which galls me – an incentive to build where the risk of flooding and hurricanes is very high.

But let’s look at additional information and analysis.

We’ll start with this excellent primer on the issue from Professor William Shughart.

Disaster relief arguably is, in short, something of a public good that would be undersupplied if responsibility for providing it were left in the hands of the private sector. If this line of reasoning is sound, the activity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or something like it is a proper function of the national government. …even if disaster relief is thought of as a public good—a form of “social insurance” against fire, flood, earthquake, and other natural catastrophes—it does not follow that government provision is the only or necessarily the best option. …both economic theory and the historical record point to the conclusion that the public sector predictably fails to supply disaster relief in socially optimal quantities. Moreover, because it facilitates corruption, creates incentives for populating disaster-prone areas, and crowds out self-help and other local means of coping with disaster, government provision of assistance to disaster’s victims actually threatens to make matters worse. …Government agencies are created by legislation, overseen by elected officials, and operated by huge bureaucracies. Public employees’ fear of being blamed for doing something wrong (or failing to do something right) produces risk aversion…the people who set priorities and make decisions are often separated by multiple layers of management from those on the ground who know what really needs to be done.

Professor Shughart explains that “public choice” and “moral hazard” play a role.

FEMA has been shown to be responsive more to the political interests of the White House than to the needs of disaster victims on the ground. …federal emergency relief funds tend to be allocated disproportionately to electoral-vote-rich states that are important to the sitting president’s reelection strategy. …The term moral hazard refers to the reduction in the cost of carelessness… The prospect of receiving federal and state reconstruction assistance after the next hurricane creates an incentive for others to relocate their homes and businesses from inland areas of comparative safety to vulnerable coastal areas. …The expectation of receiving publicly financed disaster relief may explain why 69 percent of the residents of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast did not have federal flood insurance when Katrina hit. …the immediate reactions of for-profit businesses, nongovernmental organizations large and small, and countless individual volunteers amply demonstrate that the private sector can and will supply disaster relief in adequate and perhaps socially optimal quantities

Barry Brownstein has a sober assessment of the underlying problem.

…federal flood insurance was amplifying the impact of storms by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in areas prone to flooding. …the case against subsidized flood insurance is not a case against growth; it is a case against distorted growth. Federally supported insurance overrides the risk-reducing incentives that insurance premiums provide and results in building in vulnerable areas. …In a free market, insurance premiums on cars, for instance, tend to settle toward an “actuarially fair price.” …If you have a history of drunk driving, that increases the chances you’ll make an insurance claim on your car – so your premiums will be higher, and that encourages you not to drive in the future (or to drive sober in the first place). …Getting the government out of the flood insurance business and having insurance companies determine actuarially sound premiums is the only way for homeowners, businesses, and builders to know the real risk they are assuming.

And here are excerpts from a column by David Conrad and Larry Larson.

…the Great Flood of 1993 in the upper Midwest. After that disaster, the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report…made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes… The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding… That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods. …Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. …substantial benefits for property owners and taxpayers could be gleaned by simply removing damaged buildings, rather than repairing them only to see them flooded out again. …many flood insurance policies were heavily subsidized and underestimated risk, leading to premiums that were far too low. …Americans facing some new devastation in the future will be looking back at Harvey and wondering why we didn’t act now.

Even the Washington Post has a reasonable perspective on this issue.

National Flood Insurance Program…an…increasingly dysfunctional program. Enacted 50 years ago…, the program made a certain sense in theory…in return for appropriate local land-use and other measures to prevent development in low-lying areas and for actuarially sound premiums. Politics being what they are, the program gradually fell prey to pressure from developers and homeowners in the nation’s coastal areas. Arguably, the existence of flood insurance encouraged development in flood zones that would not have occurred otherwise. …Ideally, more of the costs of flood insurance would be shouldered by the people and places who benefit most from it; modern technology and financial tools should enable the private sector to handle more of the business, too. Such radical reform is not on Congress’s agenda, of course.

As you might expect, Steve Chapman has a very clear understanding of what’s happening.

The National Flood Insurance Program, created in 1968 under LBJ on the theory that the private insurance market couldn’t handle flood damage, presumed that Washington could. Like many of his Great Society initiatives, it has turned out to be an expensive tutorial on the perils of government intervention. …A house outside of Baton Rouge, La., assessed at $56,000, has soaked up 40 floods and over $428,000 in insurance payouts. One in North Wildwood, New Jersey has been rebuilt 32 times. Nationally, some 30,000 buildings classified as “severe repetitive loss properties” have been covered despite having been swamped an average of five times each. Homes in this category make up about one percent of the buildings covered by the flood insurance program—but 30 percent of the claims. Their premiums don’t cover the expected losses. But as National Resources Defense Council analyst Rob Moore told The Washington Post, “No congressman ever got unelected by providing cheap flood insurance.” …The root of the problem is a familiar one: the people responsible for these decisions are not spending their own money. They find it easier to indulge the relative handful of flood victims than to attend to the interests of millions of taxpayers in general.

Now let’s look at some of the perverse consequences of federal intervention.

Such as repeated bailouts for certain properties.

Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.” The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country. Between 1979 and 2015, government records show the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr. Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month. …Homes and other properties with repetitive flood losses account for just 2% of the roughly 1.5 million properties that currently have flood insurance, according to government estimates. But such properties have accounted for about 30% of flood claims paid over the program’s history. …Nearly half of frequently flooded properties in the U.S. have received more in total damage payments than the flood program’s estimate of what the homes are worth, according to the group’s calculations.

Disaster legislation, Rachel Bovard explained, is often an excuse for unrelated pork-barrel spending.

In 2012, President Obama requested a $60.4 billion supplemental funding bill from Congress, ostensibly to fund reconstruction efforts in the parts of the country most impacted by Hurricane Sandy. However, that’s not what Congress gave him, or what he signed. Instead, the bill was loaded up with earmarks and pork barrel spending, so much so that only around half of the bill ended up actually being for Sandy relief. Consider just a handful of the goodies contained in the final legislation…$150 million for Alaska fisheries (Hurricane Sandy was on the east coast of the US; Alaska is the country’s western most tip)…$8 million to buy cars and equipment for the Homeland Security and Justice departments (at the time of the Sandy supplemental, these agencies already had 620,000 cars between them)…$821 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge waterways with no relation to Hurricane Sandy (the Corps never likes to waste a disaster)…$118 million for AMTRAK ($86 million to be used on non-Sandy related Northeast corridor upgrades). …the Sandy supplemental represented the worst of special interest directed, unaccountable, pork-barrel spending in Washington.

And as seems to always be the case with government, Jeffrey Tucker explains that disaster relief subsidizes corrupt favors for campaign contributors.

Look closely enough and you find corruption at every level. I recall living in a town hit by a hurricane many years ago. The town mayor instructed people not to clean up yet because FEMA was coming to town. To get the maximum cash infusion, the inspectors needed to see terrible things. When the money finally arrived, it went to the largest real estate developers, who promptly used it to clear cut land for new housing developments. …It does seem highly strange that this desktop operation in Montana would be awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. That sounds outrageous. But guess what? …Zinke claims that he had “absolutely nothing to do” with selecting the company that got the contract, even though the company is in his hometown and his own son worked there. And yet there is more. The Daily Beast discovered that the company that is financing Whitefish’s expansions, HBC Investments, was founded by its current general partner Joe Colonnetta. He and his wife were larger donors to Trump campaign, in every form permissible by law and at maximum amounts. …FEMA has long been used as a pipeline to cronies.

The ideal solution is to somehow curtail the role of the federal government.

Which is what Holman Jenkins suggests in this column for the Wall Street Journal, even though he is pessimistic because rich property owners capture many of the subsidies.

What’s really missing in all such places is…proper risk pricing through insurance. …Now we wonder if it can even be ameliorated. …our most influential citizens all have one thing in common: a house in Florida. An unfortunate truth is that the value of their Florida coastal property would plummet if they were made to bear the cost of their life-style choices. A lot of ritzy communities would shrink drastically. Sun and fun would still attract visitors, but property owners and businesses would face a new set of incentives. Either build a lot sturdier and higher up. Or build cheap and disposable, and expect to shoulder the cost of totally rebuilding every decade or two. Faced with skyrocketing insurance rates, entire communities would have to dissolve themselves or tax their residents heavily to invest in damage-mitigation measures. …With government assuming the risk, why would businesses and homesteaders ever think twice about building in the path of future hurricanes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason offered some very sensible suggestions after Hurricane Harvey.

Many of the folks who take on the risk of heading into an unstable area do so because they are driven by the twin motivations of fellow-feeling and greed. These people are often the fastest and most effective at getting supplies where they are most needed, because that’s also where they can get the best price. This is just as true for Walmart as it is for the guy who fills his pickup with Poland Spring and batteries. Don’t use the bully pulpit to vilify disaster entrepreneurs, small or large. …by trying to control who gets into a storm zone to help, governments can wind up blockading good people who could do good while waiting for approval from Washington in a situation where communications are often bad. Ordinary people see and know things about what their friends and neighbors need and want that FEMA simply can’t be expected to figure out. …Emergency workers and law enforcement shouldn’t waste post-storm effort rooting around in people’s homes for firearms. Law-abiding gun owners do not, by and large, turn into characters from Grand Theft Auto when they get wet.

Amen to her point about so-called price gouging. The politicians who demagogue against price spikes either don’t understand supply-and-demand, or they don’t care whether people suffer. Probably both.

Sadly, FEMA, federal flood insurance, and other forms of intervention now play a dominant role when disasters occur.

That being said, let’s wrap up today’s column with some examples of how the private sector still manages to play a very effective role. We’ll start with this article from the Daily Caller.

Faith-based relief groups are responsible for providing nearly 80 percent of the aid delivered thus far to communities with homes devastated by the recent hurricanes… The United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has 20,000 volunteers trained to serve in disaster response teams, not only helps clean up the mess and repair the damage inflicted on homes by disasters, but also helps families… The Seventh Day Adventists help state governments with warehousing various goods and necessities to aid communities in the aftermath of a disaster. …Non-denominational Christian relief organization Convoy of Hope helps to provide meals to victims of natural disasters by setting up feeding stations in affected communities.

And I strongly recommend this video by Professor Steve Horwitz, my buddy from grad school.

The famous “Cajun Navy” is another example, as noted by the Baton Rouge Advocate.

The Pelican State managed Sunday to avoid most of Harvey’s fury. But around Baton Rouge, Lafayette and other parts of the state, members of the Cajun Navy sprung into action… Many who spent last August wading around south Louisiana’s floodwaters in boats packed them up Sunday and headed west to help rescue Texans caught in the floods. …”I can’t look at somebody knowing that I have a perfect boat in my driveway to be doing this and to just sit at home,” said Jordy Bloodsworth, a Baton Rouge member of the Cajun Navy who flooded after Hurricane Katrina when he lived in Chalmette. “I have every resource within 100 feet of me to help.” Bloodsworth was heading overnight on Sunday to Texas to help with search and rescue. …Others arrived in Texas earlier on Sunday. Toney Wade had more than a dozen friends…in tow as he battled rain and high water to get to Dickinson, Texas. Wade is the commander of an all-volunteer group of mostly former law enforcement officers and former firefighters called Cajun Coast Search and Rescue, based in Jeanerette. They brought boats and high-water rescue vehicles with them, along with food, tents and other supplies.

There’s also the “Houston Navy.”

Here’s another good example of how the private sector – when it’s allowed to play a role – acts to reduce damage.

Increasingly, insurance carriers are finding wildfires, such as those in California, are an opportunity to provide protection beyond what most people get through publicly funded fire fighting. Some insurers say they typically get new customers when homeowners see the special treatment received by neighbors during big fires. “The enrollment has taken off dramatically over the years as people have seen us save homes,” Paul Krump, a senior executive at Chubb, said of the insurer’s Wildfire Defense Services. …Tens of thousands of people benefit from the programs. …The private-sector activity calls to mind the early days of fire insurance in the U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries before municipal fire services became common. Back then, metal-plaque “fire marks” were affixed to the front of insured buildings as a guide for insurers’ own fire brigades.

It’s also important to realize that armed private citizens are the ones who help maintain order following a disaster, as illustrated by this video of a great American (warning: some strong language).

I imagine that guy would get along very well with the folks in the image at the bottom of this column.

Last but not least, here’s some analysis for history buffs of what happened after the fire that leveled much of Chicago in the 1800s.

…does the current emphasis on top-down disaster relief favored in the US and beyond represent the best strategy? Emily Skarbek, a professor at Brown University, approached this question by studying one of the most famous catastrophes of the 19th century, the Chicago fire of 1871. …scholars and laypeople alike are convinced that there is no substitute for the resources and direction that centralized governments can provide in the wake of a disaster. …This maxim was apparently inconsistent with the Chicago fire, however, as the Midwestern city was reconstructed in a remarkably short period of time, and without the supervision of an overbearing central government. …in 1871 there was no analogue to the present-day, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), meaning that relief efforts had to be decentralized. Moreover, there was no institutionalized source of government financial aid…it was up to Chicago’s residents to develop solutions to the calamity that they faced. …The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was founded, and set about coordinating the funds and efforts, including sophisticated bylaws regarding who merited support, and at what level. …the society exhibited the flexibility and adaptability necessary for it to expand dramatically immediately after the fire…and to subsequently contract once the needs for its services fell. This latter feature distinguishes Chicago’s relief efforts from those of 21st century government agencies.

Since I started with an image that summarizes the foolishness of government-subsidized risk, let’s end with another visual showing the impact of government.

Or, let’s apply the lesson more broadly.

Sadly, I predict that politicians will ignore these logical conclusions and immediately clamor after Hurricane Florence for another wasteful package of emergency spending, most of which will have nothing to do with saving lives and have everything to do with buying votes. Trump, being a big spender, will be cheering them on.

Which will then encourage more damage and risk more lives in the future. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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Remember the odious, immoral, and corrupt TARP bailout?

Well, it’s becoming an issue in the 2016 presidential race, with some folks criticizing Donald Trump for siding with Bush and Obama on the issue.

I suppose I could make a snide observation about the absurdity of Trump being perceived as an anti-establishment candidate when he supported a policy that had unanimous support from political insiders.

But I would much rather focus on the policy implications. So when Neil Cavuto asked me to comment on Chris Christie’s rejection of bailouts, I took the opportunity to stress (once again) that it wasn’t a TARP-or-nothing choice and that there was a sensible, non-corrupt, way of dealing with failing financial firms. Simply stated, only bail out depositors and let bondholders and shareholders take the hit.

For the geeks who are reading this, you’ll recognize that the policy I’m advocating is often called the FDIC-resolution approach.

And it’s worth noting that this was used at the beginning of the financial crisis. As I pointed out in the discussion, two of the big financial institution that first got in trouble – WAMU and IndyMac – were liquidated.

But once Bush’s execrable Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, took control of the process, decisions were made to rescue the fat cats as well as the depositors.

The bottom line is that a lot of establishment figures, including GOPers like Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, argue that TARP was necessary because the financial system needed to be recapitalized.

Yet that’s also what happens with the FDIC-resolution approach. The only real difference is whether financial institutions should be rescued along with depositors.

Well, my view is that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

P.S. The other guest in the interview made a very good point about America becoming “bailout nation.” I fully agree. To the extent that we have private profits and socialized losses, we’ll have bigger and bigger problems with moral hazard. After all, if you’re in Las Vegas and someone else is covering your losses, why not make high-risk/high-reward bets.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my driveway is finally clear. A special thanks to the family next door. Not only were they smarter than me (as I wrote yesterday, they parked their cars near the end of their driveway), they’re also nicer than me. They came over and helped me finish when they were done!

Actually, I like to think I’d be equally thoughtful. I’ll have to look for a chance to repay their good deed.

By the way, I should add that the father next door works for a social conservative organization, which is one more piece of evidence for my view that so-cons and libertarians should be allies.

Tim Carney explains that natural alliance much better.

P.P.P.S. In hopes of convincing some of my leftist friends, I can’t resist making one final point.

When government gets to pick winners and losers, it’s highly probable that those who get the handouts, bailouts, and subsidies will be rich, powerful, and politically connected. Heck, just think of the Ex-Im Bank.

As noted by my former colleague, Will Wilkinson, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

I realize that statists won’t agree with me that it’s wrong for the federal government to redistribute from rich to poor. But I hope they’ll be on my side in fighting against redistribution from poor to rich!

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Is the third time the charm, at least for bailouts?

First, we had the TARP bailout in the United States, and that turned out to be a corrupt mess.

Second, we had the Greek bailout, which has squandered hundreds of billions of euros to prop up a welfare state.

Now we have a third big bailout, with China seeking to stabilize that nation’s faltering stock market. So anybody want to guess how this will work out?

To put it mildly, the Wall Street Journal does not have a favorable opinion of this financial market intervention.

Beijing…officials pumped public money into the market. It hasn’t worked; the Shanghai Composite Index closed Thursday at 3661, 29% below its June peak. …Peking University economist Christopher Balding has added up the bailout and stimulus measures announced since the market panic started in late June. They total $1.3 trillion, or more than 10% of GDP.

So why is this a bad thing?

For two reasons, as the WSJ explains. First, it’s an unjustified wealth transfer. Second, it creates an economic environment contaminated by moral hazard.

Investors who bought when the market was already frothy are getting a chance to exit with some of their profits intact. But Chinese who don’t own stocks are justified in asking why they must subsidize their fellow citizens’ poor decisions. Mr. Balding’s spreadsheet shows that the market-rescue measures represent a huge transfer of wealth to investors who should have been prepared to shoulder the risks when they bought shares. The failed bailout reinforces the expectation that Beijing will attempt to manage the financial markets in the future. This moral hazard means the volatility will continue, along with the costs of future bailouts.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I share the Wall Street Journal’s skepticism. In a recent interview with Neil Cavuto, I said the Chinese government (like just about all governments) is too focused on short-run pain avoidance.

In other words, by trying to prop up markets in the short run, I think the Chinese government will cause a far greater amount of economic pain in the long run.

Two other points from the interview deserve highlighting.

  1. China’s economy needs more economic liberalization (as opposed to the snake oil being peddled by the IMF) if it hopes to become a first-world nation. While there’s been a lot of progress since the wretched deprivation and poverty of Mao’s era, China is still way behind the United States and other nations with more capitalistic systems. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are appropriate role models.
  2. Whenever folks on the left point to a “success story” that ostensibly proves big government and central planning are more successful that capitalism, it’s just a matter of time before they’re proven wrong. Some of them were delusional enough to think the Soviet Union was economically successful (see bottom of this post) and events proved them wrong. As I pointed out in the interview, some of them thought Japan’s model of central planning was the ticket for prosperity and events proved them wrong. More recently, some of them have argued that China’s state-driven economy was a role model and they’re now being shown to be wrong.

P.S. Let’s close with some economic humor.

Fans of old-time comedy are probably familiar with the famous who’s-on-first exchange between Abbott and Costello.

Well, here’s a modern version of that exchange that showed up in my mailbox yesterday, only it deals with joblessness. I won’t strain credibility by asserting it’s as funny as the original sketch, but it does indirectly highlight the fact that we should focus primarily on labor force participation since that measure how many people are producing wealth for the nation.

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.

ABBOTT: Good Subject. Terrible times. It’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: You just said 5.6%.

ABBOTT: 5.6% unemployed.

COSTELLO: Right, 5.6% out of work.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: Okay, so it’s 23% unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: Wait a minute! Is it 5.6% or 23%?

ABBOTT: 5.6% are unemployed. 23% are out of work.

COSTELLO: If you are out of work, you are unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, Congress said you can’t count the “out of work” as the unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.

COSTELLO: But they are out of work!

ABBOTT: No, you miss his point.

COSTELLO: What point?

ABBOTT: Someone who doesn’t look for work can’t be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn’t be fair.

COSTELLO: To whom?

ABBOTT: The unemployed.

COSTELLO: But ALL of them are out of work.

ABBOTTNo, the unemployed are actively looking for work. Those who are out of work gave up looking; and if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.

COSTELLO: So if you’re off the unemployment rolls, that would count as less unemployment?

ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!

COSTELLOThe unemployment rate just goes down because you don’t look for work?

ABBOTTAbsolutely it goes down. That’s how it gets to 5.6%. Otherwise it would be 23%.

COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means there are two ways to bring down the unemployment number?

ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.

COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?

ABBOTT: Correct.

COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?

ABBOTT: Bingo.

COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to have people stop looking for work.

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like an economist.

COSTELLO: I don’t even know what the hell I just said!

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like a politician.

P.P.S. While economists deservedly get mocked, we’re not totally useless. We occasionally show a bit of cleverness.

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I’ve shared lots of analysis (both serious and satirical) about the mess in Greece and I feel obliged to comment on the latest agreement for another bailout.

But how many times can I write that the Greek government spends too much money and has a punitive tax system (and a crazy regulatory regime, a bloated bureaucracy, etc)?

So let’s try a different approach and tell a story about the new bailout by using some images.

Here’s an amusing perspective on what actually happened this weekend.

I explained a few days ago that the bailouts have simultaneously enabled the delay of much-needed spending reforms while also burdening Greece with an impossible pile of debt.

But the Greek bailouts, like the TARP bailout in the United States, were beneficial to powerful insiders.

Here’s a look at how banks in various European nations have been able to reduce their exposure to Greek debt.

Sure, the banks almost surely still lost money, but they also transferred a lot of the losses to taxpayers.

To get a sense of the magnitude of handouts, here’s a chart from a Washington Post story.

And now, assuming the deal gets finalized, that pile of foolish and unsustainable debt will be even bigger.

One of the main components of the new agreement is that Greece supposedly will raise revenue by selling $50 billion of state-owned assets.

Don’t believe that number. But not because there aren’t plenty of assets to sell, but rather because the track record on privatization proceeds suggests that there is a giant gap between what Greece promises and what Greece delivers.

To understand why assets aren’t being sold, just keep in mind that most of the assets are under the control of the government in order to provide unearned benefits to different interest groups.

If you’re an overpaid unionized worker at a government-owned port, for instance, the last thing you want is to have that port sold to a private investor who presumably would want to link pay to productivity.

Here’s the best bit of humor I’ve seen about the negotiations this past weekend. It purports to show a list of demands from Germany to Greece.

While this image is funny, it’s also wrong.

Germany isn’t imposing anything on Greece. The Germans are simply stating that Greek politicians need to make some changes if they want more handouts.

Moreover, it’s quite likely that Germany will wind up being a big loser when the dust settles. Here’s some of what Gideon Rachman wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.

So true.

I fear this deal will simply saddle Greece with a bigger pile of debt and set the stage for a more costly default in the future.

The title of this column is about pictures. But let’s close with some good and bad analysis about the Greek mess.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Louis Woodhill has some of the best insight, starting with the fact that the bailout does two things.

First, this new bailout is largely just a mechanism to prevent default on past bailouts. Sort of like making a new loan to your deadbeat brother-in-law to cover what he owes you on previous loans.

…the €53.5 billion in new loans…would just be recycled to Greece’s creditors (the IMF, the EU, and the ECB) to pay the interest and principal on existing debts.

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

The key point is that a bailout agreement would restore European Central Bank (ECB) “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA) to the Greek banking system. This would allow Greeks that still have deposits in Greek banks (€136.5 billion as of the end of May) to get their money out of those banks.

That’s good news if you’re a Greek depositor, but that’s about it.

In other words, those two “achievements” don’t solve the real problem of Greece trying to consume more than it produces.

Indeed, Woodhill correctly identifies a big reason to be very pessimist about the outcome of this latest agreement. Simply stated, Greek politicians (aided and abetted by the Troika) are pursuing the wrong kind of austerity.

…what is killing Greece is a lack of economic growth, and the meat of Tsipras’ bailout proposal consists of growth-killing tax hikes. The media and the economics profession have been framing the alternatives for Greece in terms of a choice between “austerity” and “stimulus.” Unfortunately for Greece, austerity has come to mean tax increases, and stimulus has come to mean using “other people’s money” (mainly that of German taxpayers) to support Greek welfare state outlays. So, if “other people” aren’t willing to fund more Greek government spending, then the only option the “experts” can imagine is to raise taxes on an economy that is already being crushed by excessive taxation.

Let’s close with the most ridiculous bit of analysis about the Greek situation. It’s from Joe Stiglitz,

Joseph Stiglitz accused Germany on Sunday of displaying a “lack of solidarity” with debt-laden Greece that has badly undermined the vision of Europe. …”Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable. If the ECB allows Greek banks to open up and they renegotiate whatever agreement, then wounds can heal. But if they succeed in using this as a trick to get Greece out, I think the damage is going to be very very deep.”

Needless to say, I’m not sure why it’s “solidarity” for one nation to mooch in perpetuity from another nation. I suspect Stiglitz is mostly motivated by an ideological desire to redistribute from the richer Germans to the poorer Greeks,

But I’m more interested in why he isn’t showing “solidarity” to me. I’m sure both his income and his wealth are greater than mine. So if equality of outcomes is desirable, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is by sending me a big check?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the money. Like most leftists, Stiglitz likes to atone for his feelings of guilt by redistributing other people’s money.

And I also won’t be holding my breath waiting for a good outcome in Greece. As I wrote five-plus years ago, Greece needs the tough-love approach of no bailouts, which would mean a default but also an immediate requirement for a balanced budget.

Last but not least, I’m going to confess a possible mistake. I always thought that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. But this latest bailout of Greece shows that maybe politicians from other nations are foolish enough to provide an endless supply of other people’s money.

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When debating and discussing the 2008 financial crisis, there are two big questions. And the answers to these questions are important because the wrong “narrative” could lead to decades of bad policy (much as a mistaken narrative about the Great Depression enabled bad policy in subsequent decades).

  1. What caused the crisis to occur?
  2. What should policy makers have done?

In a new video for Prager University, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute succinctly and effectively provides very valuable information to help answer these questions. Particularly if you want to understand how the government promoted bad behavior by banks and created the conditions for a crisis.

Here are some further thoughts on the issues raised in the video.

Deregulation didn’t cause the financial crisis – Nicole explained that banks got in trouble because of poor incentives created by previous bailouts, not because of supposed deregulation. As she mentioned, their “risk models” were distorted by assumptions that some financial institutions were “too big to fail.”

But that’s only part of the story. It’s also important to recognize that easy-money policies last decade created too much liquidity and that corrupt subsidies and preferences for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac steered much of that excess liquidity into the housing sector. These policies helped to create the bubble, and many financial institutions became insolvent when that bubble burst.

TARP wasn’t necessary to avert a meltdown – Because the video focused on how the “too big to fail” policy created bad incentives, there wasn’t much attention to the topic of what should have happened once big institutions became insolvent. Defenders of TARP argued that the bailout was necessary to “unfreeze” financial markets and prevent an economic meltdown.

But here’s the key thing to understand. The purpose of TARP was to bail out big financial institutions, which also meant protecting big investors who bought bonds from those institutions. And while TARP did mitigate the panic, it also rewarded bad choices by those big players. As I’ve explained before, using the “FDIC-resolution” approach also would have averted the panic. In short, instead of bailing out shareholders and bondholders, it would have been better to bail out depositors and wind down the insolvent institutions.

Bailouts encourage very bad behavior – There’s a saying that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell, which is simply a clever way of pointing out that you need both profit and loss in order for people in the economy to have the right set of incentives. Bailouts, however, screw up this incentive structure by allowing private profits while simultaneously socializing the losses. This creates what’s known as moral hazard.

I’ve often used a simple analogy when speaking about government-created moral hazard. How would you respond if I asked you to “invest” by giving me some money for a gambling trip to Las Vegas, but I explained that I would keep the money from all winning bets, while financing all losing bets from your funds? Assuming your IQ is at least room temperature, you would say no. But our federal government, when dealing with the financial sector, has said yes.

Good policy yields short-run pain but long-run gain – In my humble opinion, Nicole’s most valuable insight is when she explained the long-run negative consequences of the bailouts of Continental Illinois in 1984 and Long-Term Capital Management in 1998. There was less short-run pain (i.e., financial instability) because of these bailouts, but the avoidance of short-run pain meant much more long-run pain (i.e., the 2008 crisis).

Indeed, this “short termism” is a pervasive problem in government. Politicians often argue that a good policy is unfeasible because it would cause dislocation to interest groups that have become addicted to subsidies. In some cases, they’re right about short-run costs. A flat tax, for instance, might cause temporary dislocation for some sectors such as housing and employer-provide health insurance. But the long-run gains would be far greater – assuming politicians can be convinced to look past the next election cycle.

Let’s close by re-emphasizing a point I made at the beginning. Narratives matter.

For decades, the left got away with the absurd statement that the Great Depression “proved” that capitalism was unstable and destructive. Fortunately, research in recent decades has helped more and more people realize that this is an upside-down interpretation. Instead, bad government policy caused the depression and then additional bad policy during the New Deal made the depression longer and deeper.

Now we have something similar. Leftists very much want people to think that the financial crisis was a case of capitalism run amok. They’ve had some success with this false narrative. But the good news is that proponents of good policy immediately began explaining the destructive role of bad government policy. And if Nicole’s video is any indication, that effort to prevent a false narrative is continuing.

P.S. The Dodd-Frank bill was a response to the financial crisis, but it almost certainly made matters worse. Here’s what Nicole wrote about that legislation.

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There’s a big fiscal battle happening in Europe. The relatively new Greek government is demanding continued handouts from the rest of Europe, but it wants to renege on at least some of the country’s prior commitments to improve economic performance by reducing the preposterous burden of spending, regulation, and intervention.

That seems like a rather strange negotiating position. Sort of like a bank robber holding a gun to his own head and saying he’ll shoot himself if the teller doesn’t hand over money.

At first glance, it seems the Greeks are bluffing. Or being suicidally self-destructive.

And maybe they are posturing and/or being deluded, but there are two reasons why the Greeks are not totally insane.

1. The rest of Europe does not want a Greek default.

There’s a famous saying, attributed to J. Paul Getty, that applies to the Greek fiscal fight. Simply stated, there are lots of people and institutions that own Greek government bonds and they are afraid that their investments will lose value if Greece decides to fully or partially renege on its debts (which is an implicit part of Greece’s negotiating position).

So while Greece would suffer if it defaulted, there would be collateral damage for the rest of Europe. In other words, the hypothetical bank robber has a grenade rather than a gun. And while the robber won’t fare well if he pulls the pin, lots of other people may get injured by shrapnel.

And to make matters more interesting, previous bailouts of Greece have created a rather novel situation in that taxpayers are now the indirect owners of a lot of Greek government debt. As you can see from the pie chart, European taxpayers have the most exposure, but American taxpayers also are on the hook because the IMF has participated in the bailouts.

The situation is Greece is akin to a bankruptcy negotiation. The folks holding Greek government debt are trying to figure out the best strategy for minimizing their losses, much as the creditors of a faltering business will calculate the best way of extracting their funds. If they press too hard, the business may go bust and they get very little (analogous to a Greek default). But if they are too gentle, they miss out on a chance of getting a greater share of the money they’re owed.

2. Centralization is the secular religion of the European elite and they want Greece in the euro.

The bureaucrats at the European Commission and the leaders of many European nations are emotionally and ideologically invested in the notion of “ever closer union” for Europe. Their ultimate goal is for the European Union to be a single nation, like the United States. In this analogy, the euro currency is akin to the American dollar.

There’s a general perception that a default would force the Greek government to pull out of the euro and re-create its own currency. And for the European elite who are committed to “ever closer union,” this would be perceived as a major setback. As such, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Greece’s new government.

Given the somewhat blurry battle lines between Greece and its creditors, what’s the best outcome for advocates of limited government and individual liberty?

That’s a frustrating question to answer, particularly since the right approach would have been to reject any bailouts back when the crisis first started.

Without access to other people’s money, the Greek government would have been forced to rein in the nation’s bloated public sector. To be sure, the Greek government may also have defaulted, but that would have taught investors a valuable lesson about lending money to profligate governments.

And it would have been better if Greece defaulted five years ago, back when its debt was much smaller than it is today.

But there’s no point in crying about spilt milk. We can’t erase the mistakes of the past, so what’s the best approach today?

Actually, the right answer hasn’t changed.

And just as there are two reasons why the Greek government is being at least somewhat clever in playing hardball, there are two reasons why the rest of the world should tell them no more bailouts.

1. Don’t throw good money after bad.

To follow up on the wisdom of J. Paul Getty, let’s now share a statement commonly attributed to either Will Rogers or Warren Buffett. I don’t know which one (if either) deserves credit, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the advice to stop digging if you find yourself in a hole. And Greece, like many other nations, has spent its way into a deep fiscal hole.

There is a solution for the Greek mess. Politicians need to cut spending over a sustained period of time while also liberalizing the economy to create growth. And, to be fair, some of that has been happening over the past five years. But the pace has been too slow, particularly for pro-growth reforms.

But this also explains why bailouts are so misguided. Politicians generally don’t do the right thing until and unless they’ve exhausted all other options. So if the Greek government thinks it has additional access to money from other nations, that will give the politicians an excuse to postpone and/or weaken necessary reforms.

2. Saying “No” to Greece will send a powerful message to other failing European welfare states.

Now let’s get to the real issue. What happens to Greece will have a big impact on the behavior of other European governments that also are drifting toward bankruptcy.

Here’s a chart showing the European nations with debt burdens in excess of 100 percent of economic output based on OECD data. Because of bad demographics and poor decisions by their politicians, every one of these nations is likely to endure a Greek-style fiscal crisis in the near future.

And keep in mind that these figures understate the magnitude of the problem. If you include unfunded liabilities, the debt levels are far higher.

So the obvious concern is how do you convince the politicians and voters in these nations that they better reform to avoid future fiscal chaos? How do you help them understand, as Mark Steyn sagely observed way back in 2010, that “The 20th-century Bismarckian welfare state has run out of people to stick it to.

Well, if you give additional bailouts to Greece, you send precisely the wrong message to the Italians, French, etc. In effect, you’re telling them that there’s a new group of taxpayers from other nations who will pick up the tab.

That means more debt, bigger government, and a deeper crisis when the house of cards collapses.

P.S. Five years ago, I created a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek 10-step prediction for the Greek crisis and stated at the time that we were at Step 5. Well, it appears my satire is slowly becoming reality. We’re now at Step 7.

P.P.S. Four years ago, I put together a bunch of predictions about Greece. You can judge for yourself, but I think I was quite accurate.

P.P.P.S. A big problem in Greece is the erosion of social capital, as personified by Olga the Moocher. At some point, as I bluntly warned in an interview, the Greeks need to learn there’s no Santa Claus.

P.P.P.P.S. The regulatory burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples of red tape are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The fiscal burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples pf wasteful spending are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Since we once again have examined a very depressing topic, let’s continue with our tradition of ending with a bit of humor. Click here and here for some very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing. If you like funny videos, click here and here. Last but not least, here’s some very un-PC humor about Greece and the rest of Europe.

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I periodically comment about government corruption, often in the context of trying to make the general point that shrinking the size and scope of the public sector is the most effective way of reducing sleaze in Washington.

Now let’s get specific. I’ve already cited Obamacare, the tax code, and the Export-Import Bank as facilitators of corruption. Let’s augment that list by looking at government intervention in the financial sector.

We’ll start with some findings on the effectiveness of lobbying. In some new research, two professors at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center found that being active in Washington is beneficial for top executives, but it doesn’t help a company’s bottom line.

Here’s how the Washington Examiner summarized the study.

What is the return on investment in lobbying? Does a PAC contribution actually pay for itself? There are so many cases of a lobbyist winning an earmark, or a PAC contribution immediately preceding a subsidy, that it’s hard not to see politics as a good investment. …But for every company that hits the jackpot after lobbying campaign, scores of others end up throwing away money on lobbyists — and scores of executives whose PAC contributions don’t help the company a bit. Business professors Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University collected the data and dug into the bigger question: Do lobbying expenditures and PAC contributions increase corporate profits, on average? Their answer: No… When Sobel and Graefe-Anderson crunched numbers, conducted regressions, and controlled for firm size, industry and other factors, they arrived at data “suggesting that any benefits gained from corporate political activity are largely captured by firm executives.” In short, when a CEO and a lobbyist decide to get their company more involved in politics, the CEO and the lobbyist benefit, while not helping the company.

These findings at first struck me as counterintuitive. After all, there are plenty of companies, such as General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, that seem to obtain lots of unearned profits thanks to their lobbying activities.

But don’t forget that government – at best – is a zero-sum game. So for every company, industry, or sector that “wins,” there will be lots of companies, industries, and sectors that suffer.

And speaking of industries that benefit, there was one exception to the Mercatus Center findings.

The only exception was the banking and financial sectors, where they found “positive and significant correlations between firm lobbying activity and three measures of firm financial performance,” including return on investment and return on equity.

At this stage, let’s be careful to specify that lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone.

But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

And this latter definition is a good description of what the financial industry has been doing in Washington. That’s bad for taxpayers, but it’s also bad for the financial sector and the overall economy. Here are some of the conclusions from a recent study published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

…there have been many concerns with banks deemed “too big to fail.” These concerns derive from the belief that the too-big-to-fail status gives large banks a competitive edge and incentives to take on additional risk. If investors believe the largest banks are too big to fail, they will be willing to offer them funding at a discount. Together with expectations of rescues, this discount gives the too-big-to-fail banks incentives to engage in riskier activities. …The debate around too-big-to-fail banks has given rise to a large literature. … we study whether banks that rating agencies classify as likely to receive government support increase their risk-taking. …The results of our investigation show that a greater likelihood of government support leads to a rise in bank risk-taking. Following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired. Further, and in line with this finding, our results show that stronger government support translates into an increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings. …the level of impaired loans in a bank loan portfolio increases directly with the level of government support. …riskier banks are more likely to take advantage of potential sovereign support.

Isn’t that wonderful. Our tax dollars have been used to increase systemic risk and undermine economic growth. Though none of us should be surprised.

Since this has been a depressing column, let’s enjoy some morbid TARP humor.

Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail about the cronies who got rich from the Bush-Obama bailouts.

Good to see Hank Paulson getting ripped. At the end of the Bush Administration, I attempted to convince the White House that “FDIC resolution” was a much better way of recapitalizing the banking system. I was repeatedly told, though, that Paulson was in charge and there was no way of stopping him from bailing out his former cronies on Wall Street.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Here’s another cartoon about the real victims of TARP. Like the first cartoon, it’s an oldie but goodie and it’s a good illustration of how government is a zero-sum scam.

But let me re-emphasize a point I made above. Taxpayers aren’t the only ones to lose. The entire economy suffers from bailouts and subsidies. Such policies distort the allocation of capital and lead to slower long-run growth.

That may not be easy to measure, but it matters a lot.

Here’s a video explaining how such policies create moral hazard.

This is a good time to recycle the famous poster about supposed government solutions.

P.S. Not all financial institutions are corrupted by government. The nation’s 10th-largest bank, BB&T, did not want and did not need a bailout. But as the bank’s former CEO (and, I’m proud to say, current Cato Institute president) explained in his book, thugs from Washington threatened to use regulatory coercion if BB&T didn’t participate.

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When you support limited government and individual freedom, you don’t enjoy many victories. Particularly if you’re relying on the U.S. Senate.

But it occasionally happens.

The Senate held firm and stopped Obama from getting a fiscal cliff tax hike at the end of 2010.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted against a VAT.

The Senate unanimously rejected a Greek bailout.

To be sure, some of these votes were merely window dressing, but it’s still better to have symbolic victories rather than symbolic defeats.

Today, however, I want to report on a real victory against statism. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has been forced to give up on his effort to ram through an expansion of IMF bailout authority as part of legislation giving money to Ukraine.

This is the second time that this White House initiative has been blocked.

Here are some blurbs from a report in Politico.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will drop a provision to reform the International Monetary Fund from a bill to help Ukraine… Reid acknowledged that while the Ukraine package would likely have passed the Senate, it was “headed to nowhere” in the GOP-led House. …the administration did not hide its disappointment Tuesday afternoon over the removal of the IMF language. “We are deeply disappointed by the news that Republican opposition has forced the Senate to remove the [IMF] reforms from the Ukraine assistance package,” said Treasury Department spokeswoman Holly Shulman. …Backers of including the IMF reforms in the Ukraine deal note that it will help boost the organization’s lending capacity. …The United States is the lone holdout country that has not ratified the IMF deal, which was struck more than three years ago. But many congressional Republicans have raised concerns about potential taxpayer risk with the IMF agreement.

It goes without saying that the IMF won’t give up, and the Obama Administration is still pushing to expand the international bureaucracy’s bailout authority.

The battle will continue. Lew and ObamaIn preparation for the next skirmish, Desmond Lachmann at AEI debunks the White House’s empty talking points.

Next week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will make his case before the House Financial Service Committee for linking IMF reform to U.S. bilateral aid for Ukraine. If the past is any guide, he will do so by putting forward a set of disingenuous arguments in favor of his case. …The principal argument that Secretary Lew must be expected to make is that IMF quota reform is essential for large-scale IMF Ukrainian financial support. This argument glosses over the fact that under the IMF’s lending policy under “exceptional circumstances”, which has been resorted to on many occasions since the 1994 Mexican tequila crisis, the amount that the IMF can lend a country bears little relation to the size of that country’s IMF quota.  …Ukraine is reportedly currently seeking around a U.S. $15 billion IMF economic adjustment loan. If Mr. Lew were to be candid, he would inform Congress that such an amount represents only around 800 percent of Ukraine’s present IMF quota or less than half the amount of quota that the IMF recently committed to several countries in the European economic periphery. He would also inform Congress that the IMF presently has more than U.S. $400 billion in uncommitted loanable resources. This would make the IMF’s prospective loan to Ukraine but a drop in the IMF’s large bucket of available resources even without IMF reform.

Lachmann goes on to make additional points, including the fact that IMF bailouts create very real financial risks for American taxpayers.

The U.S. Treasury never tires of assuring Congress that large-scale IMF lending poses no risk to the US taxpayer. It bases its argument on the fact that the IMF enjoys preferred creditor status and that to date no major country has defaulted on its IMF loans. However, the Treasury conveniently glosses over the fact that IMF loan repayment experience with past IMF lending on a small scale might not be a good guide to what might happen on IMF loans of an unprecedentedly large scale. To understand that there now might be a real risk to the US taxpayer from IMF lending, one only need reflect on the IMF’s current Greek lending experience. Greece’s public debt is now mainly officially owned and it amounts to over 175 percent of GDP. It is far from clear that the European Central Bank will go along with the idea that the IMF enjoys senior status over the ECB in terms of Greece’s loan repayments.

His point about risks to taxpayers is right on the mark. In effect, the IMF is like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For years, defenders of intervention in the housing market argued those government-created entities didn’t cost a penny. Then they suddenly cost a lot.

The same will happen with the IMF.

Lachmann closes by asking the right question, which is whether there’s any reason to expand the IMF’s authority.

I think that’s the real issue. And to answers that question, let’s go to Mark Hendrickson’s column in Forbes.

He starts by noting that the IMF has “re-invented” itself to justify its existence, even though it supposedly was created for a world – which no longer exists – of fixed exchange rates.

Bureaucracies are masters of mission creep. They constantly reinvent themselves, cleverly finding ways to expand in size, scope, power, and budget. The IMF has perfected this art, having evolved from its original purpose of trying to facilitate orderly currency exchange rates as countries recovered from World War II to morphing into a global busybody that makes loans—with significant strings attached—to bankrupt governments.

And what do we get in exchange for being the biggest backer of IMF bailouts?

What has the American taxpayer received in return for billions of dollars siphoned through the IMF to deadbeat governments? Nothing but ill will from abroad. First, the IMF’s policy of lending millions, or billions, to fiscally mismanaged governments is counterproductive: Such bailouts help to prop up inept and/or corrupt governments. Second, bailouts create moral hazard, inducing private corporations and banks to lend funds to poor credit risks, confident that IMF funds will make them whole. Third, typical IMF rescue packages demand…higher taxes in the name of balancing the budget.

It would be far better, Professor Hendrickson explains, if reckless governments had to immediately accept the market’s judgement whenever they overspent.

…it doesn’t take expert economists to figure out when a government is overspending. Markets will discipline spendthrift governments by ceasing to make funds available to them until they institute needed reforms. Without a bailout fairy like the IMF, government leaders will quickly learn that if they wish the government to remain viable, they must spend within available means. By telling governments what they “have” to do when it’s obvious they need to make those reforms anyhow, the IMF gives the recipient government a convenient scapegoat. It blames the pain of austerity on meddlesome foreigners, and since the U.S. is perceived as the real power in the IMF, we get painted as the bad guys. The bottom line: IMF use of our tax dollars buys us a ton of resentment from abroad.

He also points out that the IMF makes a habit of suggesting bad policy – even for the United States.

the IMF has waged war against American taxpayers and workers. Last October, the IMF released a paper suggesting both higher tax rates (mentioning a “revenue-maximizing” top marginal tax rate of around 60 percent) and possibly the confiscation of a sizable percentage of private assets to restore fiscal balance to the federal government. The IMF also has been one of the leading forces discouraging “tax competition” between countries. …It is using American tax dollars to lobby the American government to increase the flow of tax dollars from our Treasury to the IMF. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the IMF released a report on March 13 warning of the perils of “income inequality,” and suggesting tax increases and wealth redistribution as ways by which Uncle Sam might address the problem.

So what’s the bottom line?

If the IMF really wanted to improve the economic prospects of the world’s people, it would recommend reductions in government spending and taxation. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is that vigorous economic growth is highly correlated with a country’s government shrinking as a share of GDP. What are the chances that the IMF will ever advocate such policies? Not very, as we realize that the IMF’s very existence depends on government taxes. …In a better world, there wouldn’t be an IMF. For the present, though, the best we can hope for is for enough members of Congress to understand that the IMF’s interests are opposed to those of the American people and to refuse any requests that the IMF makes for increased funding.

The Wall Street Journal is more measured in its rhetoric, but it basically comes to the same conclusion.

Republicans are reluctant to grant more leverage to European countries, which they blame for relaxing rules on Greece’s bailout in order to rescue the continent’s banks. …An internal audit last week also found that the fund’s growth forecasts were “optimistic” for countries like Greece and Ukraine that were granted larger loans under its “exceptional access” framework. Republicans fear the IMF is becoming a discount borrowing window for spendthrift governments trying to postpone reforms. IMF economic advice is often lousy—raise taxes and devalue… Congress ought to debate whether the IMF has outlived its usefulness as it evolves from a tool for Western interests into a global check-writing bureaucracy.

Amen. Which is why the United States should shut the Treasury door to the IMF. If other nations want to subsidize bad policy and promote bigger government, they can do it with their own money.

P.S. Here’s a list of other IMF transgressions against good public policy (all partially backed by American taxpayers).

Endorsing government cartels to boost tax and regulatory burdens.

Trying to undermine flat tax systems in Albania and Latvia.

Encouraging a “collective response” to over-spending in welfare states.

Pushing for higher tax burdens in Greece.

Seeking the same destructive policy in Cyprus.

Advocating for more centralization and bureaucratic rule in Europe.

Urging higher taxes in El Salvador.

Supporting “eurobonds” so that taxpayers from other nations can subsidize the profligacy of welfare states such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Pushing an energy tax that would mean $5,500 of added expense for the average American household.

Reflexively endorsing every possible tax increase.

Aiding and abetting Obama’s “inequality” agenda with disingenuous research.

And remember, these pampered bureaucrats get lavishly compensated and don’t have to pay tax on their bloated salaries.

P.P.S. But let’s be fair to the IMF. The bureaucrats have given us – albeit unintentionally – some very good evidence against the value-added tax.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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It doesn’t create a lot of confidence in Europe that tiny little Cyprus, with a GDP less than Vermont, is now causing immense turmoil.

Though to be more accurate, events in Cyprus aren’t causing turmoil as much as they’re causing people to examine both government finances and bank soundness in other nations. And that’s causing anxiety because folks have taken their heads out of the sand and looked at the reality of poor balance sheets.

Looking closer at the specific mess in Cyprus, an insolvent financial sector is the cause of the current crisis, though the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has dramatically increased the burden of government spending in recent years and therefore isn’t in a position to finance a bailout.

But that then raises the question of why Cyprus is bailing out its banks? Why not just let the banks fail?

Well, here’s where things get messy, particularly since we don’t have a lot of details. There are basically three options for dealing with financial sector insolvency.

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers (or bank consumers via insurance premiums) are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

As far as I can determine, Cyprus wants to pick the third option, sort of akin to the corrupt TARP regime in the United States. But that approach can only work if the government has the ability to come up with the cash when banks go under.

I’m assuming, based on less-than-thorough news reports, that this is the real issue for Cyprus. It needs taxpayers elsewhere to pick up the tab so it can bail out not only depositors, but also to keep zombie banks operating and thus give some degree of aid to shareholders and bondholders as well.

But other taxpayers don’t want to give Cyprus a blank check, so they’re insisting that depositors have to take a haircut. In other words, the traditional government-imposed deposit insurance regime is being modified in an ad hoc fashion.

And this is why events in tiny Cyprus are echoing all over Europe. Folks in other nations with dodgy banks and unsound finances are realizing that their bank accounts might be vulnerable to haircuts as well.

So what should be done?

I definitely think the insolvent institution should be liquidated. The big-money people should suffer when they mismanage a bank. Shareholders should lose all their money. Then bondholders should lose their money.

Then, if a bailout is necessary, it should go only to depositors (though I’m not against the concept of giving them a “haircut” to save money for taxpayers).

But Cyprus apparently can’t afford even that option. And the same is probably true of other European nations.

In other words, there isn’t a good solution. The only potential silver lining to this dark cloud is that people are sobering up and acknowledging that the problem is widespread.

Whether that recognition leads to good policies to address the long-run imbalances – such as reductions in the burden of government spending and the implementation of pro-market reforms – remains to be seen.

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I have a serious question for readers. What’s worse, bailouts for government or bailouts for the private sector?

Yes, both are bad, but is it worse to bail out a bankrupt entitlement program, such as Social Security, or it is worse to bail out an industry, such as the financial sector?

Bailout gravy train cartoonTo bail out the housing sector, or to bail out Medicare? Fannie and Freddie, or GM and Chrysler?

All these examples involve huge amounts of money, and both private-sector and public-sector bailouts have perverse long-run effects, but which is worse?

And don’t forget there are lots of other bailouts in our future, as discussed on this interview for Fox Business News.

The interview took place before Christmas, but the topic is even more relevant today since the budget season is about to begin.

Most of the discussion was about government agencies and programs that may get more handouts, though bailouts for the Federal Housing Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be indirect bailouts for big business and housing.

So we’d get the worst of all worlds, more government spending and more cronyism.

Or, as they call it in Washington, a win-win situation.

But I call it legal corruption.

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I think it’s a mistake to bail out profligate governments, and I have the same skeptical attitude about bailouts for mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies.

Simply stated, bailouts reward past bad behavior and make future bad behavior more likely (what economists call moral hazard).

But some folks think government was right to put taxpayers on the hook for the sloppy decisions of private companies. Here’s the key passage in USA Today’s editorial on bailouts.

Put simply, the bailouts worked. True, in some cases the government did not do a very good job with the details, and taxpayers are out $142 billion in connection with the non-TARP takeovers of housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But it’s time for the economic purists and the Washington cynics to admit that government can occasionally do something positive, at least when faced with a terrifying crisis.

Well, I guess I’m one of those “economic purists” and “Washington cynics,” so I’m still holding firm to the position that the bailouts were a mistake. In my “opposing view” column, I argue that the auto bailout sets a very bad precedent.

Unfortunately, the bailout craze in the United States is a worrisome sign cronyism is taking root. In the GM/Chrysler bailout, Washington intervened in the bankruptcy process and arbitrarily tilted the playing field to help politically powerful creditors at the expense of others. …This precedent makes it more difficult to feel confident that the rule of law will be respected in the future when companies get in trouble. It also means investors will be less willing to put money into weak firms. That’s not good for workers, and not good for the economy.

If I had more space (the limit was about 350 words), I also would have dismissed the silly assertion that the auto bailout was a success. Yes, GM and Chrysler are still in business, but the worst business in the world can be kept alive with sufficiently large transfusions of taxpayer funds.

And we’re not talking small amounts. The direct cost to taxpayers presently is about $25 billion, though I noted as a postscript in this otherwise humorous post that experts like John Ransom have shown the total cost is far higher.

And here’s what I wrote about the financial sector bailouts.

The pro-bailout crowd argues that lawmakers had no choice. We had to recapitalize the financial system, they argued, to avoid another Great Depression. This is nonsense. The federal government could have used what’s known as “FDIC resolution” to take over insolvent institutions while protecting retail customers. Yes, taxpayer money still would have been involved, but shareholders, bondholders and top executives would have taken bigger losses. These relatively rich groups of people are precisely the ones who should burn their fingers when they touch hot stoves. Capitalism without bankruptcy, after all, is like religion without hell. And that’s what we got with TARP. Private profits and socialized losses are no way to operate a prosperous economy.

The part about “FDIC resolution” is critical. I’ve explained, both in a post criticizing Dick Cheney and in another post praising Paul Volcker, that policymakers didn’t face a choice of TARP vs nothing. They could have chosen the quick and simple option of giving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation additional authority to put insolvent banks into something akin to receivership.

Indeed, I explained in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report that the FDIC did handle the bankruptcies of both IndyMac and WaMu. And they could have used the same process for every other poorly run financial institution.

But the politicians didn’t want that approach because their rich contributors would have lost money.

I have nothing against rich people, of course, but I want them to earn money honestly.

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This past Monday, I took part in a panel discussion about the financial crisis at the European Resource Bank in Brussels.

One of my main points was that people in private markets always make mistakes, but that this is a healthy and necessary process so long as there is a profit and loss feedback mechanism that encourages people to quickly learn when things go wrong (and also to reward them when they make wise decisions).

In the financial crisis, though, we saw the government interfere with this process. First, bad policies such as easy money from the Fed and corrupt Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies distorted market signals and caused a needlessly high level of mistakes. Second, bailouts interfered with the feedback mechanism, teaching people that large levels of imprudent risk are okay.

The politicians, unsurprisingly, didn’t learn the right lessons. Instead of reducing the level of government intervention, they imposed the Dodd-Frank bailout bill (named after two lawmakers who were pimps for Fannie and Freddie and thus disproportionately responsible for the crisis).

I don’t know if this is a case of too-little-too-late, but more and more people are waking up to the idea that regulation is the problem rather than the solution. Perhaps most important, some of these people are in positions of power.

Let’s begin with a look at how the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page reacted to some very important research by some uncharacteristically astute regulators from the Bank of England.

…the speech of the year was delivered at the Federal Reserve’s annual policy conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on August 31. And not by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. …BoE Director of Financial Stability Andrew Haldane and colleague Vasileios Madouros point the way toward the real financial reform that Washington has never enacted. The authors marshal compelling evidence that as regulation has become more complex, it has also become less effective. They point out that much of the reason large banks are so difficult for regulators to comprehend is because regulators themselves have created complicated metrics that can’t provide accurate measurements of a bank’s health. …Basel II relied far too much on the judgments of government-anointed credit-rating agencies, plus a catastrophic bias in favor of mortgages as “safe.” Instead of learning from that mistake, the gnomes have written into the new Basel III rules a dangerous bias in favor of sovereign debt. The growing complexity of the rules leaves more room for banks to pursue regulatory arbitrage, identifying assets that can be classified as safe, at least for compliance purposes. …in both the U.K. and U.S. the number of regulators has for decades risen faster than the number of people employed in finance. Complexity grows still faster. The authors report that in the 12 months after the passage of Dodd-Frank, rule-making that represents a mere 10% of the expected total will impose more than 2.2 million hours of annual compliance work on private business. Recent history suggests that if anything this will make another crisis more likely. Here’s a better idea: Raise genuine capital standards at banks and slash regulatory budgets in Washington. Abandon the Basel rules on “risk-weighting” and other fantasies of regulatory omniscience.

The references to the Basel regulations are particularly noteworthy. These are the rules, cobbled together by regulators from different nations, and they’re supposed to steer financial institutions away from excessive risk.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that these rules caused imprudent behavior. Indeed, one of the slides from my presentation in Brussels specifically highlighted the perverse impact of the Basel regulations.

Some American regulators also understand the inverse relationship between regulation and well-functioning markets. The Wall Street Journal opines on the words of Thomas Hoenig.

The same “fundamentally flawed” system of financial rules that failed in 2008 lives on, “but with more complexity” in the latest proposals from regulators. That was the blunt message on Friday from Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Director Thomas Hoenig. He was talking about the pending implementation of international bank capital standards known as Basel III. …Mr. Hoenig did a public service at an American Banker symposium by reviewing the relevant history from 2008: “It turns out that the Basel capital rules protected no one: not the banks, not the public, and certainly not the FDIC that bore the cost of the failures or the taxpayers who funded the bailouts. The complex Basel rules hurt, rather than helped the process of measurement and clarity of information.” Observing a Basel system that only grows more complicated as U.S. regulators prepare to implement the latest version, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City also pointed out that the biggest winners from such regulatory regimes are never the little guys. Mr. Hoenig explained that “the most brazen and connected banks with the smartest experts will game the system…”

I closed my remarks in Brussels by saying that government does have a role in financial markets, but I said that it should focus on identifying and punishing fraud. The free market, by contrast, is the best way to promote safety and soundness.

More specifically, there is nothing quite like the possibility of failure and losses to encourage prudent behavior. As I stated in this interview, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

Hell, by contrast, occurs when government intervenes and sets up a system of private profits and socialized losses.

P.S. The financial crisis doesn’t create much opportunity for humor, but this cartoon is definitely worth a laugh.

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Kevin Williamson of National Review is always worth reading, whether he’s kicking Paul Krugman’s behind in a discussion about the Texas economy, explaining supply-side economics, or even when he’s writing misguided things about taxation.

But I’m tempted to say that anything he’s written to date pales into insignificance compared to his analysis of the corrupt relationship between big government and Wall Street. Here are some excerpts, but read the entire article.

He starts out with a strong claim about the Obama Administration being in the back pocket of Wall Street.

…it’s no big deal to buy a president, which is precisely what Wall Street did in 2008 when, led by investment giant Goldman Sachs, it closed the deal on Barack Obama. For a few measly millions, Wall Street not only bought itself a president, but got the start-up firm of B. H. Obama & Co. LLC to throw a cabinet into the deal, too — on remarkably generous terms. …the real bonus turned out to be Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, who came up through the ranks as part of the bipartisan Robert Rubin–Hank Paulson–Citigroup–Goldman Sachs cabal. Geithner, a government-and-academe man from way back, never really worked on Wall Street, though he once was offered a gig as CEO of Citigroup, which apparently thought he did an outstanding job as chairman of the New York Fed, where one of his main tasks was regulating Citigroup — until it collapsed into the yawning suckhole of its own cavernous ineptitude, at which point Geithner’s main job became shoveling tens of billions of federal dollars into Citigroup, in an ingeniously structured investment that allowed the government to buy a 27 percent share in the bank, for which it paid more than the entire market value of the bank. If you can’t figure out why you’d pay 100-plus percent of a bank’s value for 27 percent of it, then you just don’t understand high finance or high politics.

Since I’ve compared Tim Geithner to Forest Gump, I’m not going to argue with this assessment.

Later in the article, Kevin makes a case that politicians are engaging in widespread insider trading.

Nancy Pelosi and her husband were parties to a dozen or so IPOs, many of which were effectively off limits to all but the biggest institutional investors and their favored clients. One of those was a 2008 investment of between $1 million and $5 million in Visa, an opportunity the average investor could not have bought, begged, or borrowed his way into — one that made the Pelosis a 50 percent profit in two days. Visa, of course, had business before Speaker Pelosi, who was helping to shape credit-card-reform legislation at the time. Visa got what it wanted. The Pelosis have also made some very fortunate investments in gasand energy firms that have benefited from Representative Pelosi’s legislative actions. The Pelosis made a million bucks off a single deal involving OnDisplay, the IPO of which was underwritten by investment banker William Hambrecht, a major Pelosi campaign contributor. …Besting Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.) got in on the pre-IPO action, without putting up so much as one rapidly depreciating U.S. dollar of his own assets, when a political supporter — who just happened to be the biggest shareholder of the firm in question — lent him $14,000 to buy shares in the private company, which he then sold for more than a hundred grand after the firm went public. There wasn’t so much as a written loan agreement. On and on and on it goes: Sen. John Kerry invested aggressively in health-care companies while shaping health-care legislation. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R. Ala.) was a remarkably apt options trader during the days when he had a front-row seat to Congress’s deliberations on the unfolding financial crisis.

I wish I had known these details when I went on TV to discuss congressional corruption earlier this year.

Kevin also explained how Warren Buffett made a boatload of money thanks to insider knowledge about bailouts.

…during the financial crisis, a big piece of Goldman Sachs was bought by Warren Buffett, who stacked up a lot of cash when the government poured money into that struggling investment bank with the support of Barack Obama. When the federal government bought into Goldman Sachs, it negotiated for itself a 5 percent dividend. Warren Buffett got 10 percent — on top of the benefit of having Washington inundate his investment with great rippling streams of taxpayers’ money.

No wonder Buffett’s willing to lie in order to help his buddies in Washington raise taxes.

There’s a lot more in the article, but here’s a final excerpt that sums up Kevin’s article.

Wall Street can do math, and the math looks like this: Wall Street + Washington = Wild Profitability. Free enterprise? Entrepreneurship? Starting a business making and selling stuff behind some grimy little storefront? You’d have to be a fool. Better to invest in political favors. …hedge-fund titans, i-bankers, congressional nabobs, committee chairmen, senators, swindlers, run-of-the-mill politicos, and a few outright thieves (these categories are not necessarily exclusive) all feeding at the same trough, and most of them betting that Mitt Romney won’t do anything more to stop it than Barack Obama did. …Free-market, limited-government conservatives should be none too eager to welcome them back, nor should we let our natural sympathy with the profit motive blind us to the fact that a great many of them do not belong in the conservative movement, and that more than a few of them belong in prison.

All of this underscores why TARP was such an unmitigated disaster – and why we should be suspicious of politicians like Romney and Gingrich who supported the bailouts.

Remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

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The welfare states of Europe are in deep trouble. Decades of over-taxing and over-spending have sapped economic vitality and produced high levels of debt.

The high debt levels, by themselves, might not be a problem if European governments implemented good policy. After all, debt was even higher in many nations after World War II than it is today.

But Europe also faces a demographic problem. The population is aging, meaning that the fiscal situation will get worse – in some cases, much worse. So international investors are appropriately worried that today’s high debt levels will become tomorrow’s crippling debt levels.

And the cherry on the ice cream sundae of Europe’s fiscal nightmare is that many people have been lulled into dependency thanks to excessive government handouts combined with a political culture that tells people there is nothing wrong with mooching off others (as this cartoon aptly illustrates).

This sounds quite depressing, but there is a shred of hope. Simply stated, nations that hit rock bottom presumably have little choice but to move in the right direction.

Actually, let me qualify that statement. Governments do have the ability to maintain bad policy if they have access to bailout cash. And that’s been a problem in Europe. Nations such as Greece have very little incentive to reform if they think the European Union (German taxpayers) or International Monetary Fund (American taxpayers) will cough up some cash.

But that game, sooner or later, comes to an end. As Margaret Thatcher noted, the problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

So what, then, should be done to address the European debt crisis? The European political elite in places such as France and Germany say more bailouts are needed. Why? Because without more bailouts, there will be contagion and the world will plunge into another 2008-style crisis.

But when you strip away the hysterical rhetoric, what they’re really saying is that bailouts are needed for the banks in their own nations that foolishly lent too much money to reckless governments in other nations.

As you might suspect, this is self-serving nonsense that would simply create a bigger debt bubble that ultimately causes bigger problems.

The right answer to the European debt crisis is simple. And it only requires two steps.

1. Do not give bailouts to nations, even if that means they default. This isn’t good news if you bought, say, Greek or Portuguese bonds, but there are two big advantages of default. First, it means that the bailouts come to an end so the debt bubble doesn’t get even worse. Second, it forces the affected governments to move – overnight – to a balanced-budget rule.

So what’s the downside? There isn’t one. The aforementioned bondholders won’t be happy. They gambled in the expectation that bailouts would enable them to get high returns, but that’s their problem. Overpaid government workers and greedy interest groups in the affected nations doubtlessly will be very upset because the gravy train gets derailed, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

2. If banks become insolvent because they recklessly lent money to governments  that default, those financial institutions should be allowed to fail. More specifically, they should be put into something akin to receivership (similar to what the U.S. did 20 years ago with the S&L crisis and a few years ago with WaMu and IndyMac, and also like what Sweden did in the early 1990s). This automatically prevents financial crisis since the financial sector gets recapitalized, but without the moral hazard and/or zombie bank problems associated with TARP-style bailouts.

So what’s the downside? There isn’t one, at least compared to the alternatives. Governments would be holding harmless depositors at the failed banks, so there would be additional debt. But this debt would be a one-time burden for a policy that actually stops the bleeding, and there would be no moral hazard since shareholders, bondholders, and senior management at the failed banks would get nothing.

This raises an obvious question. If my proposed solution is so simple, why aren’t governments choosing this option?

Part of the answer is that simple solutions aren’t necessarily easy solutions. We know how to fix America’s fiscal crisis, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. Governments will sometimes do the right thing – but only after they’ve exhausted every other option.

Europe isn’t quite at that stage. Yes, Greece is being allowed to default, which is a small step in the right direction, but the political elite hope that the right blend of additional bailouts and patchwork reforms can fix the problem.

I suppose that might happen, especially if the world economy somehow begins to boom. But don’t hold your breath.

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I’m not an expert on addiction, but it’s probably safe to assume that one would never treat an alcoholic by giving him more booze. Or treat an addict by giving him more drugs.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m opposed to bailouts. I’m against bailing out banks. I’m against bailing out car companies. I’m against bailing out governments.

And I’m against bailing out international bureaucracies that are running short on cash because they’ve been busy engaging in bailouts, which is the point I make in this Fox News interview.

I wish there was more time in the interview to expand on the issue of corrupt investors and financial institutions that love to make big profits when a bubble is expanding, but want handouts, subsidies, and bailouts when a bubble bursts.

This is why short-term blips in the stock market are not necessarily a good indicator of the economy’s long-run health.

Another point worth making is that failure is (or should be) part of the market process. One of my favorite lines, which I should have used in the interview, is that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

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This is getting surreal. We now have layers of bailouts around the world.

Different nations are doing their own bailouts. On top of that, the Europeans have set up something called the European Financial Stability Facility, which does bailouts across the continent. And then there’s the International Monetary Fund, doing bailouts on a global basis. (and we’re not even counting the indirect bailouts from the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank)

So how is this system working? Well, if you understand the principle of moral hazard, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a big flop. Giving bailouts is like trying to cure an alcoholic with more booze.

But the problems are much deeper than promoting bad behavior. Bailouts also undermine growth by misallocating capital. And, most ominously, they create even bigger problems down the road.

Which is now what’s happening. The queen bureaucracy of bailouts, the IMF, may run out of bailout money, and presumably will demand more handouts from member nations – with the United States on the hook for providing the biggest share. Here’s a blurb from the story in the Daily Telegraph.

The head of the IMF has warned that its $384bn (£248bn) war chest designed as an emergency bail-out fund is inadequate to deliver the scale of the support required by troubled states.In a document distributed to the IMF steering committee at the weekend, Ms Lagarde said: “The fund’s credibility, and hence effectiveness, rests on its perceived capacity to cope with worst-casescenarios. Our lending capacity of almost $400bn looks comfortable today, but pales in comparison with the potential financing needs of vulnerable countries and crisis bystanders.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, the IMF should not get any more money. This is one of those moments for which the phrase “Hell No!” was invented.

The time has come to stop the cycle of bailouts. As Greece has demonstrated, bailouts simply give politicians some breathing room to postpone necessary reforms.

But it’s not just that bailouts encourage bad behavior in the public sector. They also promote moral hazard, leading financial institutions to make excessively risky loans because of an expectation that taxpayers will be coerced into making up any losses.

To understand why bailouts and moral hazard are so misguided, here’s a video narrated by Nicole Neily of the Independent Women’s Forum.

The video largely focuses on American policy issues such as Fannie, Freddie, and TARP, but the principles apply to all bailouts.

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This is either frightening or hilarious. The people in Washington who are trying to make America more like Europe are advising the Europeans to double-down on the awful policies that have pushed the continent’s welfare states to insolvency.

Here are some of the surreal details from a CNBC report.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will take the unprecedented step of attending a meeting of EU finance ministers in Poland on Friday. It will be his second trip to Europe in a week after he met his main EU counterparts at a G7 meeting last weekend. Obama said that while Greece is the immediate concern, an even bigger problem is what may happen should markets keep attacking the larger economies of Spain and Italy. “In the end the big countries in Europe, the leaders in Europe must meet and take a decision on how to coordinate monetary integration with more effective co-ordinated fiscal policy,” the news agency EFE quoted him as saying. Geithner is likely to urge euro zone finance ministers on Friday to speed up ratification of changes to their bailout fund and consider boosting its size, an EU source said. …Obama’s comments suggested that Washington is trying to nudge European governments toward closer fiscal union or a bigger bailout fund to recapitalize teetering banks but European politics, especially in Germany, make that difficult.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. Obama and Geithner want more bailouts, which will simply encourage more profligacy. And the President even endorsed more harmonization of economic policy, which will exacerbate the problems in Europe by leading to higher taxes, more spending, and additional regulation.

But you have to give Obama and Geithner credit. They support the same bad policies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Obama, however, is not fully consistent in his beliefs. During a visit to Africa, he said, “No business wants to invest in a place where government skims 20 percent off the top.” But I guess bigger government is okay in Europe, where the burden of government is already 50 percent of economic output.

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Here are two superb articles on the financial crisis.

First, from Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, we have a piece on the role of government housing subsidies. Since he warned, in advance, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were ticking time bombs, Peter has great credibility on these issues. Here is his key argument, but read the article to see how bad government policy lured people into making dumb choices.

…the financial crisis would not have occurred if government housing policies had not fostered the creation of an unprecedented number of subprime and otherwise risky loans immediately before the financial crisis began.

Second, there’s an article from Roger Lowenstein at Bloomberg that examines why so few Wall Street bigwigs were prosecuted. Here’s his basic premise, but read the entire article to learn how Wall Street executives may have been greedy SOBs, but that’s true when they make money or lose money. What matters, from a legal perspective, is whether someone committed fraud, theft, or some other crime.

…these sentiments imply that the financial crisis was caused by fraud; that people who take big risks should be subject to a criminal investigation; that executives of large financial firms should be criminal suspects after a crash; that public revulsion indicates likely culpability; that it is inconceivable (to Madoff, anyway) that people could lose so much money absent a conspiracy; and that Wall Street bears collective guilt for which a large part of it should be incarcerated. These assumptions do violence to our system of justice and hinder our understanding of the crisis. The claim that it was “caused by financial fraud” is debatable, but the weight of the evidence is strongly against it.

The only thing I will add is that failure is an integral part of a free market system. When critics say that the financial crisis proves that markets don’t work, they obviously don’t understand that capitalism is a process that continuously provides feedback in the form of profits and losses.

So the fact the people and businesses sometimes lose money is to be expected (indeed, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell). From a public policy perspective, though, it’s important that people are not encouraged to make dumb decisions with government subsidies – or shielded from the consequences of those poor choices with bailouts.

And that’s why government intervention deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the financial crisis.

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I try to visit the Drudge Report  once a day because he has a knack for finding quirky stories. One of his recent gems is a report from the UK-based Sun about an obese man who is suing the government’s healthcare system because he got close to 1200 pounds (assuming I’m right about a “stone” being 17 lbs) before getting weight-loss surgery. [CORRECTION: A “stone” is 14 lbs, so he was close to 1000 lbs]

Man mountain Paul Mason plans to sue the NHS – claiming they ignored his plight as he rocketed towards 70 stone. …Paul said: “I want to set a precedent so no one else has to get to the same size….” At his heaviest Paul was eating 20,000 calories a day – ten times what a normal, healthy man should consume – and the cost of caring for him is thought to have hit £1million in 15 years. …He finally had the £30,000 operation last spring but before it could take place floors at St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester, West Sussex, had to be reinforced at a cost of £5,000 to take his weight.

I’m not a fan of Britain’s wretched health system, but my immediate instinct is to take the side of the NHS and make some snarky comment about personal responsibility. Perhaps, for instance, we should ask Mr. Mason whether a government official was holding a gun to his head and forcing him to eat an average of 20,000 calories every day?

But that’s too easy. So I got to thinking about the public policy issues involved, particularly in the context of second-best solutions. In other words, if I’m not allowed to assume an ideal policy such as the dismantling of the National Health Service and restoration of a genuine free market, how would I deal with the issues raised in this story? There are two difficult questions we have to decide.

The first quiz deals with how to spend taxpayer money, combined with a bit of moral hazard analysis. Which option would you pick?

A. The NHS should have given him the operation right away to save money for the taxpayers in the long run. The operation cost nearly $50,000, but he was already costing taxpayers (I assume) $100,000 every year. Sounds like a smart investment that will pay for itself in just a few years.

or:

B. The NHS should not have given him the operation at all because that is akin to forcing taxpayers to subsidize personal irresponsibility.Moreover, it sends a signal to others that it will be marginally less costly to engage in similar self-destructive behavior. Last but not least, taxpayers probably will still pay through the nose to subsidize Mr. Mason’s annual expenses.

Our other quiz is about Mr. Mason’s lawsuit. As noted above, part of me thinks this case has no merit, but the article notes that it took five years before the NHS got him in the operating room after an initial surgery was canceled. In other words, it appears the lawsuit is happening because of the incompetence and waiting lines of a government healthcare system, so the real issue is the remedy. Which option would you pick?

A. Mr. Mason should win the lawsuit, both to compensate him for the government’s presumed incompetence and to punish the NHS for being so inefficient.

or:

B. Mr. Mason ate his way into trouble, so doesn’t deserve to win his lawsuit. Regarding the NHS, it is horribly inefficient, but any court-imposed damages would just get passed on to taxpayers, so there’s no possible upside.

So how do I answer these questions, assuming the Sun reported all the relevant facts and did so correctly?

For the first question, I reluctantly pick A. I’m guessing that the surgery will somewhat reduce the long-run burden that Mr. Mason is imposing on taxpayers. I realize there’s a genuine moral hazard issue, and that decisions like this make is marginally easier for other people to become morbidly obese (and thus impose costs on taxpayers), but my gut instinct is that surgery is still the best choice from a cost-benefit perspective. Finally, even though I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Mr. Mason, I’m a sucker for happy endings and maybe this will turn his life around.

For the second question, I do realize that governments should not be immune from lawsuits. And I say that even though it galls me that taxpayers pay for any damages awarded, either directly or because tax dollars are used to purchase insurance policies (it would be much better if successful lawsuits meant that damage awards were financed by cuts to agency budgets and/or reduction in bureaucrat pay, but I’m only allowed second-best solutions here). Nonetheless, I still pick B, and I make that choice with a decent degree of confidence. My decision is based two factors. First, I don’t want taxpayers to pay even more just because the government is incompetent. In many cases, that might not matter, but now we come to the second key factor, which is that Mr. Mason’s problems are self-inflicted.

To be sure, a court might be bound by the law rather than what’s right and therefore rule differently, but we already know from a previous blog post that I’m not similarly constrained.

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The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors. This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but at least one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons.

Even though this is a big issue, I have not written much about the topic, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts – especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

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I have the “opposing view” column in USA Today this morning, and my job was to explain why the politicians who voted for the Wall Street bailout deserve the scorn of voters. I made two points. First, there was no need to bail out specific firms – even if one thought the government needed to inject capital in the system. Second, it is grotesquely immoral to use the coercive power of the state to take money from poor people and give it to rich people.
Beltway insiders and members of the political establishment are mourning these developments, asserting that the TARP martyrs are noble and courageous officials who did the right thing despite the risk to their careers. The obvious implication is that ordinary voters are a bunch of yokels who did not understand the steps that were needed to rescue the financial system and the economy from collapse. This self-serving narrative is wrong. The anger at TARP is not because it injected money into the financial system. Voters are upset because funds were used to bail out specific companies. Defenders of the status quo claim this was a necessary feature of rescuing the entire system, but that is false. Politicians had the option of choosing the “FDIC resolution” approach, which also injects capital into the banking system but only as part of liquidating insolvent institutions. This means that existing management and shareholders get wiped out. Indeed, this is precisely what happened with Washington Mutual and IndyMac. And it was the approach that was used during the savings-and-loan bailout 20 years ago. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. resolution approach should have been used with all insolvent institutions, regardless of how many lobbyists they employed or how much campaign cash they had funneled to Washington. TARP was also a terrible piece of legislation because it meant that politicians, rather than market forces, determined which companies survived. It also was a moral abomination. Government-coerced redistribution is never a good idea, but the worst type of welfare is when poor people are forced to subsidize rich people.

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Nicole Gelinas has been one of the most astute observers of how government has screwed up the financial system and her column in the Washington Examiner is an excellent summary of why the Dodd-Frank bill is a step in the wrong direction. 
For 25 years, Washington has done everything in its power to subsidize Americans’ profligate borrowing habits. Debt became the fuel for economic growth. Washington subsidized the financial industry’s borrowing through implicit guarantees against loss. The feds first started rescuing creditors to “too big to fail” banks in 1984. Since then, it’s become clear to lenders — Wall Street’s global bondholders and trading counterparties — that the government would save them anytime a large financial firm foundered. Indemnified against losses, bondholders could lend nearly infinitely to Wall Street. Wall Street found creative ways to lend that money right back to the public, through mortgage brokers and credit card marketers. …The Dodd-Frank bill is a monument to the status quo. Despite promises that the bill will end bailouts, it enshrines bailouts into law. It provides for an “orderly liquidation authority,” for example, which allows “systemically important” financial firms to escape bankruptcy and to escape, too, consistent losses for their creditors. It also sets up a fast-track procedure through which the White House can ask Congress for guarantees for Wall Street’s lenders in a future crisis. In effect, the government is saying to Wall Street’s lenders: Carry on as you did before 2008. Ordinary Americans, though, understand that they can’t go on as before. Since 2008, they’ve started paying their debt back. The process is painful. As Americans borrow less, they spend less and pay less for houses. But as Americans pare back their debt, the economy will begin to heal permanently. As house prices fall, for example, because less borrowed money exists to send them higher, Americans will have more money left over after paying the mortgage. They can invest that money in the stock market for retirement. Those funds, in turn, will go to entrepreneurs who create jobs outside of the financial industry. The Dodd-Frank bill would pervert this healthy process. It would pit Washington’s too-big-to-fail subsidies and Wall Street’s creativity against Americans who are trying to do the right thing for themselves and the country.

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The politicians are urging big taxes on banks, using rhetoric designed to trick people into thinking that this is a way to make the banks pay for their own bailouts. But a general tax on all banks simply means that well-run banks subsidize the reckless banks – a problem that may get worse over time because of the moral hazard problems that seem to get worse every time politicians get more power over the industry. Greg Mankiw of Harvard has a more appealing idea, which would require automatic conversion of bonds to equity when a bank gets in trouble. This means, for all intents and purposes, that a bank would only be in a position of bailing itself out, so there is no risky cross-subsidization. And since bondholders presumably would not want to be converted into shareholders, there would be greater incentive to monitor whether the bank is being operated in a prudent manner. I’m not an expert on the specifics of the banking system, so I won’t pretend to know enough to give this my unqualified blessing, but I know it is a far better approach than the blank-check bailout/intervention authority in the legislation on Capitol Hill:

There has been much talk about restricting the use of financial derivatives. Unfortunately, writing good rules is not easy. Derivatives, like fire, can lead to disaster if not handled with care, but they can also be used to good effect. Whatever we do, let’s not be overoptimistic about how successful improved oversight will be. The financial system is diverse and vastly complicated. Government regulators will always be outnumbered and underpaid compared with those whose interest it is to circumvent the regulations. Legislators will often be distracted by other priorities. To believe that the government will ever become a reliable watchdog would be a tragic mistake. …Much focus in Washington has been on expanding the government’s authority to step in when a financial institution is near bankruptcy, and to fix the problem before the institution creates a systemic risk. That makes some sense, but creates risks of its own. If federal authorities are responsible for troubled institutions, creditors may view those institutions as safer than they really are. When problems arise, regulators may find it hard to avoid using taxpayer money. The entire financial system might well become, in essence, a group of government-sponsored enterprises. …My favorite proposal is to require banks, and perhaps a broad class of financial institutions, to sell contingent debt that can be converted to equity when a regulator deems that these institutions have insufficient capital. This debt would be a form of preplanned recapitalization in the event of a financial crisis, and the infusion of capital would be with private, rather than taxpayer, funds. Think of it as crisis insurance. Bankers may balk at this proposal, because it would raise the cost of doing business. The buyers of these bonds would need to be compensated for providing this insurance. But this contingent debt would also give bankers an incentive to limit risk by, say, reducing leverage. The safer these financial institutions are, the less likely the contingency would be triggered and the less they would need to pay for this debt.

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Price fixing is illegal in the private sector, but unfortunately there are no rules against schemes by politicians to create oligopolies in order to prop up bad government policy. The latest example comes from the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund, who are conspiring with national governments to impose higher taxes and regulations on the banking sector. The pampered bureaucrats at the IMF (who get tax-free salaries while advocating higher taxes on the rest of us) say these policies are needed because of bailouts, yet such an approach would institutionalize moral hazard by exacerbating the government-created problem of “too big to fail.” But what is particularly disturbing about the latest IMF scheme is that the international bureaucracy wants to coerce all nations into imposing high taxes and excessive regulation. The bureaucrats realize that if some nations are allowed to have free markets, jobs and investment would flow to those countries and expose the foolishness of the bad policy being advocated elsewhere by the IMF. Here’s a brief excerpt from a report in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said there was broad agreement on the need for consensus and coordination in the reform of the global financial sector. “Even if they don’t follow exactly the same rule, they have to follow rules which will not be in conflict,” he said. He said there were still major differences of opinion on how to proceed, saying that countries whose banking systems didn’t need taxpayer bailouts weren’t willing to impose extra taxation on their banks now, to create a cushion against further financial shocks. …Mr. Strauss-Kahn said the overriding goal was to prevent “regulatory arbitrage”—the migration of banks to places where the burden of tax and regulation is lightest. He said countries with tighter regulation of banks might be able to justify not imposing new taxes.

I’ve been annoyingly repetitious on the importance of making governments compete with each other, largely because the evidence showing that jurisdictional rivalry is a very effective force for good policy around the world. I’ve done videos showing the benefits of tax competition, videos making the economic and moral case for tax havens, and videos exposing the myths and demagoguery of those who want to undermine tax competition. I’ve traveled around the world to fight the international bureaucracies, and even been threatened with arrest for helping low-tax nations resist being bullied by high-tax nations. Simply stated, we need jurisdictional competition so that politicians know that taxpayers can escape fiscal oppression. In the absence of external competition, politicians are like fiscal alcoholics who are unable to resist the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

This is why the IMF’s new scheme should be resisted. It is not the job of international bureaucracies to interfere with the sovereign right of nations to determine their own tax and regulatory policies. If France and Germany want to adopt statist policies, they should have that right. Heck, Obama wants America to make similar mistakes. But Hong Kong, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and other market-oriented jurisdictions should not be coerced into adopting the same misguided policies.

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